Chief Operating Officer vs. Chief of Staff – What is the difference?

Written by vChief

July 31, 2017

I have answered, no less than three times in the past two days, this question: 

“What is the difference between a Chief Operating Officer and a Chief of Staff?” 

It most often comes in conversation after you explain how a Chief of Staff is not an executive assistant, but a leader’s right-hand strategic thought partner, who often manages projects, creates strategic plans, and especially in start-ups or other small organizations, oversees many operational aspects of a business like finance, human resources, risk management, etc. 

I understand the question, given the level of potential overlap in a COO and a COS role I highlighted above. But there are a few key differences in my mind: 

  1. A chief of staff’s loyalty is always to the leader he or she serves, as opposed to the organization overall. I don’t mean to imply that these are typically at odds. But the focus of a COO is most often the health of the overall organization, whereas the focus of a COS is on supporting the CEO to be the best leader possible for the organization. 
  2. A chief of staff supports a CEO directly in ways a COO would not. Things like outlining the CEO’s personal priorities and ensuring their time is aligned to those, drafting communications for the CEO, and supporting his or her relationship with direct reports. While other areas of their work overlap, you won’t typically see a COO working with a CEO in these ways.
  3. A chief of staff is happy to be out of the limelight. The best chiefs of staff are servant leaders, who are focused first and foremost on serving the CEO, and lifting them up to be the best leader they can be. They thrive working behind the scenes, ensuring the spotlight is squarely on their leader. This isn’t to say that a chief of staff can’t or isn’t interested in developing into a more public leadership role in the future, but within the role, they are often less outward-facing than a COO. 

In smaller organizations, a Chief of Staff can sometimes seem like a COO, given the overlap in operational duties. But as organizations grow, very often we see companies using a chief of staff alongside other roles like a COO and an executive assistant to ensure tight operations across the office of the CEO and the broader organization. If you’re considering which role is right for your team, we hope this breakdown is a helpful way to think about the differences.

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